Ooh Baby Baby

There is no question that Agatha Christie is one of the giants (if not the giant) of crime fiction.

Agatha Christie was one of my gateways to adult crime fiction (along with Charlotte Armstrong, Phyllis A. Whitney, and Victoria Holt); if I remember correctly the first book of hers I bought was Witness for the Prosecution (which I didn’t know was a short story collection) and the first novel of hers I read was Murder in the Calais Coach (best known as Murder on the Orient Express; the former was a short-lived American title for the book, and frankly, isn’t an improvement; why make the title about something no one would know what is was? Everyone knew the Orient Express). I eventually read everything she wrote, with a few exceptions (I still haven’t read Murder in Three Acts or Death in the Air) but the first Miss Marple novel I read was A Caribbean Mystery. I always preferred Miss Marple to Poirot, but I kind of want to give a Poirot or two a reread; Donna Andrews made a very clever observation about him on one of my social media posts which provides another lens for me to read through.

I found a hardcover copy of A Caribbean Mystery somewhere since we moved into the Lost Apartment; I’m not sure where. I certainly don’t remember buying it on eBay (the only other Christie I have in hardcover, Halloween Party, is missing its dust jacket, and I think I got it at a yard sale? But wait! It’s a Poirot! And has Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s stand-in! Yes, that’s a reread for the new lens for Poirot! And now that that’s sorted…), so there’s no telling where it came from. I don’t know why it took me so long to reread it–it’s actually on the short side–but it did take me a while. Maybe because there was no urgency because I remembered who the killer was?

“Take all this business about Kenya,” said Major Palgrave. “Lots of chaps gabbing away who know nothing about the place! Now I spent fourteen years of my life there. Some of the best years of my life, too–“

Old Miss Marple inclined her head.

It was a gentle gesture of courtesy. While Major Palgrave proceeded with the somewhat uninteresting recollections of a lifetime, Miss Marple peacefully pursued her own thoughts. It was a routine with which she was well acquainted. The locale varied. In the past, it had been predominantly India. Majors, colonels, lieutenant-generals–and a familiar series of words: Simla. Bearers. Tigers. Chota Hazri–Tiffin. Khitmagars, and so on. With Major Palgrave the terms were slightly different. Safari. Kikuyu. Elephants. Swahili. But the pattern was essentially the same. An elderly man who needed a listener so that he could, in memory, relive days in which he had been happy Days when his back had been straight, his eyesight keen, his hearing acute. Some of these talkers had been handsome soldierly old boys, some again had been regrettably unattractive; and Major Palgrave, purple of face, with a glass eye, and the general appearance of a stuffed frog, belonged in the latter category.

Miss Marple has bestowed on all of them the same gentle charity. She had sat attentively, inclingin her head from time to time in gentle agreement, thinking her own thoughts and enjoying what there was to enjoy, in this case the deep blue of a Caribbean sea.

I decided to reread this book for several reasons. First, I am reading a lot of “cozy” mysteries (mysteries with amateur sleuths as the main crime-solver) because I am writing one myself; second, because I’ve been wanting to revisit Christie on a smaller scale (there’s no way I could reread her entire canon again); and third, because I read a piece recently somewhere (Crime Reads, perhaps?) about the enduring legacy of Christie despite some problematic aspects to some of the books (I was well aware of the classism and anti-Semitism, and VERY WELL AWARE of the various problematic title changes for And Then There Were None over the years), and this one was mentioned. I remembered the book, I remembered the story; I remembered that this was the book where Miss Marple met Mr. Rafiel and she became, in some ways, Nemesis to the two of them (one of the later Marples was, in fact, Nemesis, and Mr. Rafiel sent her a murder to solve from beyond the grave); but I wasn’t so sure I remembered why precisely this book was problematic, could be see that way. So, I took it down from the shelves, and started reading.

The premise of the book is this: Miss Marple had a rough winter, having contracted pneumonia, and her nephew, bestselling novelist Raymond West, has decided to send his beloved elderly aunt to a warmer climate to recuperate–St. HonorĂ©, to be exact, in the Caribbean, or the West Indies–at the Golden Palm Hotel resort. (St. HonorĂ© is, of course, fictional; I may use it if I ever need a fictional Caribbean setting) As she sits in the warm sun, knitting and observing the people around her–she is always watching–and half-listening to the pompous bore rattling on to his captive audience (this scene, and her thoughts about Major Palgrave being of a type who really doesn’t need anyone to really pay attention, but to just be in hearing range with the proper noises being made when necessary, is quite insightful and brilliant; haven’t we all been there in that situation?), when he asks her if she wants to see the picture of a murderer? Since she isn’t really listening, she assents and continues to observe and watch everyone around her, and as he is reaching into his wallet to show her a picture of said murderer, he stops, turns quite purple, shoves the photo back into his wallet and loudly changes the subject. This does catch her attention, and she turns around to see what he saw–but doesn’t see anything or anyone that could explain this behavior change. He then makes excuses and leaves.

And of course, he dies that night–and this incident nags at Miss Marple. His death is explained away by him having high blood pressure, and having drank too much on top of his medication; but she isn’t so sure. And then she makes up a lie about the photograph, which she tells the doctor, and it turns out the photograph is missing.

Obviously, the Major was murdered, and did he really have high blood pressure, or is that merely gossip? As Miss Marple observes, “it’s very easy to get a rumor about, and people will just repeat it. There’s never any first-hand knowledge; it always A heard it from B who heard it from C and no one can really pinpoint where the story started.”

It’s a good story, with lots of suspects and suspicious behavior and trying to sort rumor from truth, but two more people wind up dead–a very common theme in Christie is a murderer having to kill others to cover up their original crime–before Miss Marple remembers something and figures out not only who the killer is, but who their actual target was from the very beginning.

And yes, there’s some serious problematic views of the islanders from the British paternalistic colonialist point of view. But Christie herself never says anything problematic–it always comes from the mouth of one of her characters, who, given the time period, would inevitably think that way–side comments about how many of the islanders are in committed relationships without benefit of clergy; etc. etc. etc.

So, I would say it held up about 95% on the reread; yes, there’s some problematic stuff that might be jarring for someone to read now for the first time and would probably not be allowed past the editorial process today–and excising it wouldn’t harm the book in the least.

(She’s a) Very Lovely Woman

Saturday morning and it looks kind of gray outside the windows this morning as I look out at the world blearily and drink my first cup of coffee. I slept very well last night–which is always welcome–but woke up feeling a bit groggy this morning. I am sure the caffeine will work–it generally does–but as I glance around at the chaos of my office/kitchen my inclination is to pour the coffee out and go back to bed and sleep the rest of the day away, hoping magical elves or something else will show up whilst I sleep to finish organizing and arranging this mess into something resembling workable order. On the other hand, I don’t think that’s going to happen, so I am going to need to wake up, buckle up, and put my nose to the proverbial grindstone. I’ve got to contain this mess–and do it properly, no more sweeping things under proverbial rugs to get mess out of sight–and I’ve got to work on the book today and I need to run some errands. I also have to go to the gym today, so I will most likely follow football championship games today by periodically looking on-line to check scores only. Paul is going into his office this afternoon to do some work as well, and I need to update my to-do list and…yes, it’s a very busy day for a Gregalicious.

I finished reading Murder Most Fowl by Donna Andrews last night–charming, as always, delightful and witty and funny–and decided, since I was talking about how much I preferred Miss Marple to Hercule Poirot the other day, that I should revisit one of the Marple stories. I have a hardcover copy of A Caribbean Mystery–I don’t recall where it came from–but it has some sentimental value for me in that it was the first Marple novel of Christie’s I had read all those many moons ago when I was a child, holing up in my room on Saturdays with a book and a bag of Bar-B-Q Fritos. (My first Poirot was actually Halloween Party, which I also have a hardcover copy of and again, do not recall where I got it or how long I have had it; I read most Christies in paperbacks purchased at the Bolingbrook Zayre’s off their wire paperback racks) In those first few pages of the book, it spelled out exactly what I loved about the Marple stories–about how living in a small village actually exposes one to almost every kind of human behavior there is in a smaller ecosystem, and the great irony that the smallness and rural aspects of the small community are all too frequently seen as provincial and inexperienced in the world (why Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place was so shocking when it was originally published some seventy years ago; that placid, idyllic on the surface looking village/small town/rural community has a lot more going on than one would think at first glance). This is an excellent set-up, really, for the story Christie is writing about this fictional resort on a fictional West Indies island; her nephew, the successful novelist Raymond West, has paid for this trip for her to get some sun and recover from an illness…and when she originally protested about the expense and “who will watch out for my home in St. Mary Mead”–this response (which I hadn’t remembered) hit me right between the eyes:

Raymond had dealt with everything. A friend who was writing a book wanted a quiet place in the country. “He’ll look after the house all right. He’s very house proud. He’s a queer. I mean–“

He had paused, slightly embarrassed–but surely even dear old Aunt Jane had must have heard of queers.

Now, what is one to make of that? It was a jolt, certainly. It put me in mind of something I came across on Twitter the other day, written by Wil Wheaton, in which he had answered at a con somewhere a question regarding the current debate of “can you separate the art from the artist?” This is something I’ve pondered about quite a bit–most recently, the feeling of guilt I experienced in rewatching Chinatown, knowing now what I–we all–know about Roman Polanski. I enjoyed Chinatown every time I’ve seen it, and I was now watching–rewatching–through a different lens than I had before; I was watching in terms of my own Cynical 70’s Film Festival, to see how a 70’s film that actually harkened back to old-style crime/hard-boiled/noir styles, but with a more modern (at the time) sensibility fit into that 70’s cynicism and darkness about humanity and human behavior. But the discomfort kept popping up, particularly because Polanski himself appears in the film…and I eventually decided not to rewatch another favorite, Rosemary’s Baby, because of it.

I am not going to consign Agatha Christie to the trash heap of history; she was an extraordinary writer, and one of the most influential in the field in which I myself write. Nor do I think a simple throwaway line or two in a book originally published in 1964 is enough to dismiss Christie and her canon as homophobic and never revisit her work. In fact, given the time period in which the book was written, I am surprised the two sentences weren’t, frankly, much worse. Reading the sentences didn’t offend or outrage me; it was just a surprise, primarily because I didn’t remember them at all in a book I’ve read multiple times over the years–and I think when this hardcover came into my possession (I won’t swear to it, but I think I got it during one of my many eBay buying frenzies after Hurricane Katrina, when I felt it necessary to get copies of books with some sentimental value to me) I did actually read it again because I didn’t remember the plot–and this either went right past me or I noticed and didn’t think much of it.

Revisiting this book and viewing it through a modern lens is going to be interesting. And like I said, the reference could easily have been worse–but seeing queer used in this way reminds me of how it used to be used. The younger generations are reclaiming the word, and I myself have been advocating for it as a generic term for the non-straight community for eons…but I also can see why there are people of my generation/the one before me/the one after me who object to its use and why.

But I would a thousand times rather see the word queer used in an Agatha Christie novel than faggot. And I also remember the sympathetic depiction of a lesbian couple in my favorite Marple, A Murder is Announced.

Interesting thoughts on a Saturday morning. The sun has come out now and it’s not quite so gray outside; the second cup of coffee is certainly hitting the spot right now and the grogginess is beginning to leave from not only my head but from my body. I still don’t want to straighten up this mess, but there’s no choice, really, and I want to get some good work on the book done today and tomorrow. I need to go to the gym either today or tomorrow as well; perhaps later this afternoon once I get some writing/cleaning/organizing completed. I cannot be completely lazy this weekend, much as I would like to be; I have to get things done, and the more things I get done now the fewer things I will have to do later this month (I am not, for example, going to want to write on Christmas). But once a procrastinator, always a procrastinator.

And now it occurs to me that perhaps I am procrastinating here, so I am going to bring this to a close. Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader, and will talk to you soon.